The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First, by Jonah Keri. New York: Ballantine Books, 2011. 272 pp. $26 (hardcover).
For ten years, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays ambled up to home plate and struck out. They were the worst team in Major League Baseball, averaging ninety-seven losses per season and finishing last in nine out of ten. They were, in short, the laughingstock of the league—not to mention late-night TV.
In a 2003 episode of the Late Show with David Letterman, Roger Clemens read from the list of the “Top 10 Things Baseball Has Taught Me.” Checking in at number four: “The best practical joke? Tell a teammate they’ve been traded to the Devil Rays.” (p. 5)
But the problem with the Devil Rays was not just that they always lost or that the entire league laughed at them. The team’s owner was a notorious cheapskate with a volatile temper whose antics were so terrible that he turned the team’s hometown against them.
It would have been hard for things to get worse. Indeed, they got better—and Jonah Keri tells how in The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First.
The book starts like a typical Hollywood script, with a businessman playing the role of villain. Keri tells how Vincent J. Naimoli came to own the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and details the ways Naimoli was “the Wrong CEO” for the team.
For one, Naimoli was a miser on the order of Ebenezer Scrooge, penny-pinching even at the price of employee productivity and happiness. Naimoli reused paper when writing memos, refused to buy Internet access for the office, and forced staff to bring a satchel of mail with them when traveling to a company branch (owing to the cost of stamps). And, as Keri says, “he was damn proud of it” (p. 34).
Further, Naimoli took bids from dozens of vendors for everything, requiring them to purchase season tickets first, and then created enemies by pitting them against each other and negotiating for ever more price cuts without knowing when to quit (p. 36). He received a salvo of negative publicity for inviting the local high school band to play the national anthem and telling the kids at the last minute that “they would have to pay to get into the ballpark” (p. 39). And when attendance dropped in the wake of such actions, Naimoli instituted a crackdown on fans who brought in food from outside—turning gate agents and ushers into “unflinching supercops” and creating a miserable ballpark experience for many.
As Keri shows, Naimoli’s pursuit of wins on the baseball field was similarly shortsighted. Naimoli was adamant from the start that the Devil Rays make it to the playoffs within five years. “But,” says Keri, “five years was an unrealistic projection for an expansion baseball club in the Devil Rays’ position” (p. 51)—even more so given the general manager who Naimoli chose, and kept, despite his poor performance. That general manager, Chuck LaMar, botched a number of important decisions. Keri points out that LaMar overlooked talent, paid too much for expensive veterans in hopes of meeting Naimoli’s playoff aspirations, and “threw in preference for players with Florida connections, foolishly surmising that such connections would bring in lots more fans, even when the product on the field remained lousy” (p. 57).
After nearly a decade of this sort of management, the Devil Rays had earned their reputations as perennial losers, and the ballclub was almost perfectly set up for a turnaround.
In the typical Hollywood movie the Scrooge counterpart might have handed over the reins to someone unconcerned with money, but what happened in Tampa Bay was different and far more interesting.
With the Devil Rays having hit rock bottom, three men—Stuart Sternberg, Matthew Silverman, and Andrew Friedman—bought Naimoli’s stake. The ball club’s new owners, hailing from Wall Street, certainly did not shun profits. In contrast to Naimoli, however, they devised a realistic, long-term plan for gaining them, making decisions along the way with their heads rather than their guts. . . .